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FA CIO Craig Donald on how tech is changing the world’s favourite sport

"My passion is not the football, it’s the technology..."

Football and faith have always been closely intertwined, with great players such as Pele and Diego Maradona fond of making comparisons between the world’s most popular sport and religion.

Football Association (FA) CIO Craig Donald is perhaps better placed than most to assess any such similarities given the unconventional path he took to his current role.

“My degrees are in philosophy and theology,” he says. “I was actually going to become a Roman Catholic priest before I decided to become a technologist instead. I’ve always been a bit of a geek and loved technology, so I wanted to see if I could turn that into a career.

“It certainly helps me bring a non-technical view to a technical discipline and organisation, so I think that’s maybe part of the value I add.”

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Craig, who took up his current post in 2018 after holding senior IT roles at the likes of Virgin Atlantic and easyJet, has a squad of 50 staff at his disposal who help him run IT at the FA, the governing body for football in England.

“The FA is a strange organisation because we cover everything from grassroots football all the way through to the senior teams,” he explains.

“So we’re responsible for the technology that makes sure that a 12-year-old can play football on a Saturday as well as the technology that helps us understand and analyse how well Harry Kane is doing in his games for Tottenham.

“On top of that we’ve got Wembley Stadium which we manage and we’ve got a hotel that we manage as well. So my team’s work includes everything from development through to fixing screens in the stadium to, in some cases, making sure that the AV in the hotel rooms is working and providing cameras on pitches at St George’s Park [the FA’s national training centre].”

A new tech system for grassroots football

FA CIO
The FA oversees football at all levels in England (Photo by Abigail Keenan)

While the exploits of England captain Kane and his team-mates grab the headlines, a big part of the FA’s role is overseeing more than 14.1 million people who partake in some form of grassroots football throughout the season. In IT terms this means giving club volunteers an online system through which they can register players, record results and run their teams effectively. Unfortunately the current platform, known as the Whole Game System is, to misuse a football cliché, sick as a parrot.

“Whole Game is on life support, so one of our big challenges right now is how do we replace it,” Craig says.

“It was built with all the best of intentions and the best knowledge we had at the time, but when I joined as FA CIO in 2018 I discovered it was built on platforms that couldn’t scale, it couldn’t cope with the expansion that we wanted in grassroots football, and it was creaking at the seams. It’s a monolith based on a CRM backend, but it doesn’t do CRM, it does football administration. So if we want to change one rule in our discipline system we have to go through and test everything from player registration to club affiliation.

“So I started to campaign, probably a couple of months into my tenure, to find ways to replace it. I was probably lucky to come in at a time of change and a tipping point in the understanding of technology and how it benefits sport, so I’ve been able to secure a bit more funding to allow us to replace some of that legacy.”

Whole Game’s replacement is currently known internally as Platform for Football, which marks a move from “monolith to modular”, Craig explains.

“What we’re doing right now is decoupling everything, and it’s taking us time to do it because we’re trying to do it in a way that doesn’t impact the game. Trying to keep stuff running in parallel is a bit more challenging but we think it’s the right thing for football,” he says.

“We’ve just launched a pilot of the player registration module which has just gone live with some of our leagues. Unfortunately we were just too late to avoid the pain of Whole Game registration this season, which means I’ve spent the last couple of weeks apologising a lot. The pilot is working well and we’re confident that what we’ve built works.

“We decided to build it ourselves because there’s nothing out there you can just go and buy, it’s not like an ERP or HCM platform. If you buy something it’s going to need a ton of customisations, so it didn’t make sense for us to do it that way.”

FA CIO on attracting a new generation of volunteers

Craig is hopeful Platform for Football, which should be up and running by the start of the 2021/22 season, will play a small role in helping makes the lives of club officials easier. Like many sports, football is suffering from a declining number of volunteers stepping up to run teams, which has led to the number of clubs dwindling.

“I wouldn’t say it will change the game next season because it’s a technology platform after all, but it will certainly change the way we administer the game from next season, which is important for our volunteers,” the FA CIO says.

“With the Whole Game System, if you’re a club secretary you’ve really got to sit down at a PC to use it and obviously we don’t want to do it that way now. So we’re using Angular to build an HTML 5 web app, and we’re changing the workflow inside the system to make it more mobile.

“We’re trying to attract the next generation of volunteers, and they want to do stuff on their phone while they’re on the go. This was not a big factor at the time [Whole Game System was built] and I think we ended up getting something we thought was right rather than listening to what people actually wanted. The new system won’t be perfect because nothing ever is, but we’re more confident we’re building what people want.”

Player data at your fingertips

The FA is working with some of the biggest names in tech, looking at new methods of age and ID verification for the grassroots game in conjunction with Microsoft, while at the other end of the spectrum Google tools are key to how performance data from the England team is managed.

“We have a strong technology partnership with Google and use the Google Cloud to help manage a lot of that [performance data],” Craig says.

“We’ve built our own system on top of that, which we call the Player Performance System. This is about giving coaches easy access to all the data they could possibly use, aggregated from many different sources.

“Partners we use for this include Hudl, which captures data from over 150,000 teams around the world. Then we use data from our own observations from the coaches and scouts we have around the world, we capture data from our own training camps and we pull all that together into a single system that allows the coaches to look at a snapshot of that performance, and they can then drill down and look at things like minutes played or performance in a particular match.”

Google Cloud is central to this system, and is part of the FA’s hybrid approach to IT, with distributed networks deployed alongside on-site infrastructure at locations such as Wembley.

“Player data is strictly controlled by access level, so obviously I can’t just log in and have a look at what Marcus Rashford was doing last weekend,” Craig says.

“It’s really Google Cloud that allows us to do a lot of this work, particularly the image analysis in the video analysis, making sure that we can upload massive chunks of data and then very quickly isolate and pull down the snapshots. That’s where we get the value from that to elasticity and scalability that the cloud offers.”

Changing the fan experience

Wembley Stadium in the days when supporters were allowed in (pic: Ed Webster/Flickr)

Off the pitch, Covid-19 has hit football as hard as any other sector, with matches currently being played behind closed doors. A plan to allow fans back into stadiums in October was shelved by the government as part of the latest tightening of restrictions. Craig says the FA is working towards the day when supporters will be able to roar on Gareth Southgate’s team once more.

“Right now it’s very much exploratory work,” he explains. “If we’re asked to stage test events in the next few months we’ll be able to handle those because everything will be socially distanced and numbers will be restricted.

“In the longer term, if we have to live with the Covid-19 environment going forward, then we’re starting to explore the solutions that you would see in other kinds of high-volume, high-traffic areas like airports, particularly some of the Asian airports who have dealt with the previous SARS epidemics. You can have things like automated temperature check processes where you can simply walk through and they do the scanning as you walk past the camera. We’re looking at all of that from a practical perspective.”

He also hopes technology will be able to help improve the matchday experience when supporters are finally allowed to return.

“We’re looking at whether we can offer an app to help improve the fan experience, as well as digital wayfinding and signposting in the stadium,” Craig says. “This might not sound that exciting, but particularly in a post-Covid world where we will have to manage some kind of social distancing, it’s going to be really important that we can get those kinds of practical messages out to people as quickly as possible.

“So we’re just exploring how we can manage more of that better through app-based offerings, integration with push notifications, all that stuff that would be standard for any normal organisation but for us is just a little bit new.”

This tech revolution could extend to your local semi-professional or amateur team, too.

“We’re also exploring how can we help innovate around grassroots football,” Craig says. “If social distancing remains in place for a while, is there anything we can do to allow fans of their local grassroots teams to have more impact and have more engagement with those teams remotely while they’re not pitch-side? Some of that stuff is interesting, but it’s early days.”

A Scotsman down South

Craig hails from Scotland, a fact he is often reminded of by staff and volunteers thanks to the strong rivalry between the two nations’ football teams (“I just say it points to our strong diversity policy that they let a Scotsman run technology”).

He confesses, perhaps surprisingly, to not being a big football fan himself, but believes this has been helpful in his role as the FA CIO.

“Since joining the FA I’ve grown to appreciate the game more, and love going to the matches,” he says. “I think one of the things that makes me reasonably good at my job is that my passion is not the football, it’s the technology and how we use that in a way that allows the people who are passionate about football to get their jobs done.

“Plenty of people in my team are very passionate about the game, and I just try and keep them focused on the technology and not what happened to Spurs at the weekend.”

Matthew Gooding

Matthew Gooding

Senior reporter

Matthew Gooding is a senior reporter on Tech Monitor.